Much of boxing’s appeal comes from its simplicity. Never mind the handful of rules that aren’t inherently obvious to the first-time observer, the scoring system that is so open to interpretation as to be closed to explanation, and the myriad strategic complexities. At its core, boxing is two guys punching each other. It is the sport that everybody understands.
As such, a boxing match is often easiest to promote when there is simplicity to the hook. You don’t want it to take more than 30 seconds to explain the plotlines. You want opponents who openly despise each other (or are willing to pretend to), you want a fight where a legitimate championship or a meaningful pound-for-pound ranking is at stake, and, if possible, you want adherence to Storytelling 101 with a hero on one side and a villain on the other.
Ultimately, it's raw star power that determines what the number on the far left of a fighter’s paycheck will be. But all of the numbers right of that will vary depending upon how marketable the matchup is.
Sergio Martinez vs. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is turning out to be a promotional dream. It starts with the burgeoning star power of Chavez, which, combined with his heritage and the fact that this is Mexico's Independence Day weekend, has already secured a sold-out crowd of 19,186 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for Saturday. But it goes beyond that. Whether the enmity between Martinez and Chavez is real or staged, it came through spectacularly in the two-way trash talk of HBO’s Face Off program and throughout the rest of their media engagements. There is a true championship at stake, as Martinez is the legitimate middleweight champion, the man who beat the man who beat the man who beat the man who unified all of the belts. And based on the evidence presented on the second and final episode of 24/7 last week, we have our hero and our villain. Chavez’s fans are descending upon Vegas to see if he can follow in his father’s footsteps and become the true champion of the world. Everyone else will be tuning in to see the spoiled brat portrayed on HBO’s sales-vehicle-slash-documentary-series get his ass kicked.
It’s a fascinating and rare dynamic: The villain to most of the nationalistically neutral viewers at home will have the full support of the live crowd. On closer inspection, that’s not quite the most simplistic marketing hook of all time. But the bottom line is that everyone has somebody to root for and somebody to root against.
So what makes Chavez the bad guy?
- He enjoyed a privileged upbringing as the son of arguably the world’s best boxer during the late ’80s and early ’90s, whereas Martinez grew up impoverished in Argentina. Much as Chavez deserves credit for going further in boxing than almost anyone from a middle-class-or-better background ever has before, the reality is that 99 percent of the world has reason to hate the 1 percenters.
- Martinez, still the undisputed middleweight champ among observers who believe titles must be won and lost in the ring, was stripped of his World Boxing Council belt so that the belt could be made available to Chavez — who, ohbytheway, is the godson of WBC president Jose Sulaiman. No conflict of interest there. And Chavez has admitted, in regard to his waiting more than a year before agreeing to face Martinez, that he wasn’t yet ready to fight the best even though he was a quote-unquote champion. For the uninformed: This is all standard operating procedure in boxing, a sport whose power brokers frequently see nothing beyond their short-term financial self-interests.
- Even though Martinez is the real champ, Chavez is getting the larger purse, and not by a little. Sergio’s making $1.4 million, plus pay-per-view upside. Junior is earning $3 million plus upside. That kind of money can buy a lot of hot pink underwear. In any case, a disparity like this in favor of the unproven challenger is rare, but not unheard of (see Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney) and, in this case, entirely justifiable. Chavez is the draw. “We had very little negotiating leverage, and therefore didn’t exercise any,” Martinez’s promoter, Lou DiBella, explained with a laugh on my podcast last week.
- Chavez’s smile has a hint of Joker to it.
- Based on the most recent episode of 24/7, the following words could arguably be used to describe Chavez: lazy, inconsiderate, immature, undisciplined. And this is really the most overt reason why Junior is the heel in this fight. All of the on-the-surface silver-spoon stuff listed in the bullet points above is beyond Chavez’s control and, hey, who wouldn’t take 68 percent of the pie if offered it? But on 24/7, some villainous qualities that are entirely within Chavez’s control came out. He sleeps all day and trains at night — when he trains at all, that is. Less than two weeks away from fight night, Chavez kept trainer Freddie Roach waiting for an hour for a scheduled 7 p.m. mitts workout, then finally had one of his people call Roach. Viewers got to see the phone call from Roach’s perspective. “So he don’t want to train?” we heard Roach ask. “What the fuck? Jesus Christ.” Roach paused and listened. He made the if-there-weren’t-cameras-on-me-I-might-cry face. Then he exhaled audibly. “No, I have never seen anything like this in my life. Maybe I won’t show up tomorrow and see how that works.” In another scene from the episode (presumably a couple of days later), Chavez finally got out of bed sometime after 6 p.m. wearing nothing but the aforementioned neon pink skivvies, eating a bowl of cereal and appearing generally uninterested as his dad tried to talk strategy with him. Then he dove into the swimming pool and floated about while the rest of the team continued breaking down the game plan a few feet away.
It’s not that Junior came off as a malicious evildoer. Rather, he came off as boxing’s answer to Billy Madison. It’s unclear whether he cares more about the Martinez fight or Nudie Magazine Day.
There are all different levels of villainous behavior, and certainly Chavez’s childish entitlement doesn’t press anywhere near as many buttons as Floyd Mayweather’s egomaniacal excess or Antonio Margarito’s unapologetic glove-loading. But what they have in common is that they’ve all made for tremendous 24/7 characters. If you want to drive interest and inflate PPV sales, it sure helps to have a bad guy. “Villain” and “vanilla” are just one letter away from being an anagram, but nobody counting PPV receipts will ever get the words confused. Look at the 2.4 million buys for black hat Mayweather vs. white hat Oscar De La Hoya, far above expectations. Then look at the 225,000 buys for gray hat Joe Calzaghe vs. gray hat Roy Jones, less than half of what distributors were projecting.
It sure feels like Martinez vs. Chavez is going to go the exceeding-expectations route when the numbers come in. There’s no Mayweather or Pacquiao fight within a couple of months in either direction to deplete the boxing consumer’s budget. Thanks to newcomers like Gennady Golovkin and Daniel Geale, the middleweight division is heating up. After a slow summer, boxing as a whole is riding some positive momentum off of last weekend’s Andre Ward breakthrough, the outstanding Lucas Matthysse–Ajose Olusegun fight, and the unexpected Tomasz Adamek–Travis Walker heavyweight gem. Martinez would have been favored 10-1 a year ago, but now it’s just 2-1 in Vegas and getting closer as the Chavez money pours in.
It’s simply as perfectly timed, perfectly marketed a boxing match as you can have in the current climate without Mayweather or Pacquiao’s name attached. Throw in a punk kid with a penchant for petulance, and that pay-per-view upside for Martinez and Chavez should more than cover the cost of having each other go upside their heads.